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  • Mark L. Keats

from the horse's mouth: with casey gray

IHLR: First, thanks for agreeing to be interviewed with Iron Horse. We’re big fans of your novel. How are you doing and what have you been doing recently?

Gray: Thanks. I’m well. I’ve acquired a wife, a ten-year-old stepson, and a baby boy in the last year and a half. So I’m learning how to write and live a life that is not completely self-obsessed. How are you? Is that weird to ask? I’m from the Midwest, so I’m obliged to ask back.

IHLR: Congrats on the family! Not weird at all! Thanks for asking. We're doing great. Everyone here is just taking a short break. Discount is your first novel. I’m curious how the idea for this book took form.

Gray: I became really interested in the idea of price and how worth is calculated. I remember looking at the prices of things in a Wal-Mart one day and thinking about the fact that they somehow quantified an almost infinite number of factors and abstractions. The price of a jar of peanut butter, for example, is subject to the cost of labor, the cost of petrol, the cost of peanuts and sugar (which are themselves subject to factors like the weather and the exportation of sugar cane ethanol in Brazil). It is also subject to peoples’ love of peanut butter, their nostalgic pull towards it–peanut butter’s place in our culture. There was some truth in price, in that number, that I became obsessed with. What are things worth? What are we worth: our time, our talents? Why?

IHLR: Those are some large philsophical questions to tackle, but the novel seems an ideal vehicle to discuss those things. It seems you must have researched some for this book. I’m wondering if you could talk some about the research you did for this book.

Gray: I worked in the Wal-Mart deli. It was research, but I also needed the job. I was adjuncting at the time, and I had taught too many hours, which meant that the university might actually have to enroll me in the benefits program and consider me an employee. I didn’t have any classes to teach, and I had started this book. It was pretty stressful at the time, but it all sort of worked out. The book is fiction, but my time there informed the book a great deal. Wal-Mart is a hard grind: mentally and physically. I woke up for work at 4:30am most days. I got to work at five, worked until one-thirty or two, and got home at two or two-thirty. The workdays felt so long, but my time at home felt like a blip. You get home and wash the grease smell off you the best you can, eat dinner, drink three beers––then you close your eyes, and when you open them, it’s time to do it all over again. I couldn’t write while I was working at Wal-Mart, but I took a lot of secret notes.

IHLR: I find it interesting you couldn't write about Wal-Mart while working there. That seems so true of place in general: that we can only write about it once we're removed from it. Speaking of designated spaces, I really enjoyed the visual Superstore hierarchy chart in the beginning of the book. I actually found myself studying it before reading. I’m wondering of the intention to have that chart placed before the poetic stanza from Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.

Gray: Thanks. I think there might me some poetic resonance there: the flowing blood mingling together in the Sor Juana stanza and the characters connected by the flow chart. Several readers and a few critics have expressed confusion and frustration at the number of characters in the book. I get it. I put the flow chart in to make things easier. I’m not trying to confuse anyone. But I couldn’t see making the world of this novel smaller for the sake of alleviating that confusion. The book seemed to me about how all of these characters affected one another, often in subtle and profound ways.

IHLR: I'm appreciative of the chart given the content, and I think it's quite novel for your book. I'm reminded of Isaac Bashevis Singer who said that stories should entertain first, then maybe inculcate. But always entertain. Your novel certainly entertains, and some of that might have been lost with fewer characters. While the book doesn’t ever feel as if it’s teaching, it does seem to ask us to consider the larger issues that are broiling beneath the surface. Was that a difficult thing to balance?

Gray: It wasn’t. I didn’t write the book because I had some cogent political argument to make against Wal-Mart, and I certainly didn’t want to write some sanctimonious book bashing Wal-Mart or the people who work and shop there. Most of the poor people I know shop at Wal-Mart, myself included. I wrote it because the economic and racial disparities that make big-box store culture possible are too easy to ignore. I was tired of ignoring. I’ve never had any answers. I can’t fix any of this; I’m a fiction writer. I can only look and show. When I looked at Wal-Mart long enough, what I saw was complicated. I realized that it is facile and convenient to sit back and blame this supposedly evil store. American consumers are all complicit in this system of exploitation, whether they shop at Wal-Mart or the Farmer’s Market. And, mostly, once I got into the writing, it wasn’t about politics at all; it was about characters and how hard and beautiful and funny it is to be human.

IHLR: Exactly! I was really drawn into the lives of the many characters you'd created for this book. Did you have a favorite character in the book when you were writing it?

Gray: I try not to think of my characters that way when I’m writing. I feel like liking and disliking characters leads to judgment, and it manifests in the work even if you don’t intend it to. It becomes hard to make bad things happen to the characters you like, and sometimes it becomes too easy to make bad things happen to the characters you don’t like. I try to disconnect myself from them by acknowledging that they are not real. I know a lot of writers who claim that their characters come to life and live in their heads like real people. But acknowledging the fact that they’re fictional allows me to be objective. That said, now that the book is finished and in print, I like Wilma. I think me and her could hang out.

IHLR: I don't want to reveal too much for those who haven't read your book yet, but I really loved the scenes between Wilma and Dolly. I really loved Dolly’s character and that she lives in the RV on the parking lot. She seemed like the only “outsider” in the book, or the only person who didn’t necessarily live and work in the area exclusively. I was hoping you could talk about how she came to be as well as her development.

Gray: Thanks. One of the first sections I wrote was about a woman who woke up in an RV parked in the Superstore lot to discover that her husband was dead. Wal-Mart parking lots are sort of an unofficial campground for RV people. I know that a lot of retired people cruise the country in RVs, and it just seemed like a natural situation that someone might have to deal with. I had a favorite aunt (nothing at all like Dolly) who was dealing with her husband’s (My uncle’s) death as I was writing the book. I spoke to her often, and I think the adjustments she was forced to go through sort of bled into Dolly’s struggle: sleeping alone for the first time, the oppressive quiet, the disbelief that the person you loved and shared your life with for so long is no longer there. That disbelief is so intimate. It’s impossible for anyone else to understand. We hear them when they say ‘I can’t believe he’s gone’ over and over, but it just sort of rolls off the back. What I realized talking to my aunt is that it was actually hard to believe, not just a thing that people say.

IHLR: Yes, I think that is portrayed beautifully in the book, something not easily done. Similarly, it seems as if Ken Provost is not developed as much as other characters. Was that intentional given his position?

Gray: I think so. I know readers expected him to play more of a role after his initial appearance. People (especially liberals like myself) tend to think of big-box stores in terms of the ‘poor hourly-wage employee’ vs. the corporate fat cats that exploit them. There’s some truth to this, I think, but that kind of binary is too convenient. It allows us to disavow our own responsibilities. We (the customers) benefit too, by way of cheaper goods and the ability to buy and have more. And I don’t just mean people who shop at big-box stores. If you are an American consumer, you benefit from exploitation. I think that more focus on Ken Provost would have made it easier for the reader to identify him as the villain, and to continue to ignore his own active role in the problem.

IHLR: That makes sense. By the end, I never felt as if Povost was the villian, so I think that was successful. Rather, I felt a sort of complicity with the whole system. I mean, it's hard not to shop at Wal-Mart. While you begin the book with Claudia and the Limon family, the book ends with Wilma. Is there any reason for that?

Gray: I was trying to resist the urge to cast one character or group of characters at the center of the book. I guess that choice might have been an effort to avoid an obvious structure that made the Límons the center of the work and put the other characters in orbit around them.

IHLR: I like that idea, and it makes sense because we kept switching to different characters throughout. The novel has a lot of wonderful humor, both loud and obvious as well as subtle and though provoking. Chapter 2 Orientation is rife with potential for humor and is executed in such a wonderful way. I’m wondering as to the difficulty in writing that particular scene and for humor in general throughout the book.

Gray: Thanks for saying that. If you’ve ever been through a corporate orientation like that, you know that they’re absurd. They are also gouge-your-eyes-out boring. I wanted to write an orientation chapter, and I didn’t want anyone to feel the need to open a vein while they read it, so I tried to make it funny. Crappy jobs, in my experience, are funny places. They have to be. My co-workers at Wal-Mart were hilarious. I’m glad that came across.

IHLR: It did! I worked in a large chain grocery store for nearly seven years. And you're right: Those kinds of jobs are funny places but are also full of such interesting, experienced, and smart people if you get beyond the nametag. It's another reason I think I enjoyed reading the book. What are some novels that really influenced you as a younger writer? What about now?

Gray:I think some of the novels would surprise you and some wouldn’t. Often, the work that affects me the most as a reader bears no resemblance at all to my own writing. I was deeply affected by Ulysses, for example, but I have no interest in emulating it, and I doubt Joyce would be one of the names that would come up if you read my book and tried to catalogue my influences. I remember reading Revolutionary Road in grad school and feeling like it made me a more aware and less happy human. I had this totally juvenile and unfounded belief that I was special, and it stole that from me. But I’m better off and easier to take because of it.

IHLR: You're right. I was not thinking of Joyce with your book. But I also think it's interesting the writers who influence us and how we sometimes, at least in the beginning, imitate them before finding our own voices. I’m always curious about other writers’ writing spaces. What is your workspace like?

Gray: I have a great big metal desk I bought at an antique store here in town. The sales person said it belonged to an engineer who worked at White Sands Missile Range, which is just twenty miles away from Las Cruces. I looked for launch codes and secret microfilm hidden in its crannies, but I haven’t found any yet. It’s covered in this weird faux wood plastic coating that I pick at when I fidget, and it’s easily two hundred pounds. It’s a pain in the ass to move, but I take it with me wherever I go. It’s usually a mess. When I smoked, everything on the desk was a potential ashtray: bottles, aluminum cans, lids etc. When I wrote Discount an entire wall in my office was covered with bulletin boards, and all the secret notes I took working at Wal-Mart were tacked up there. They were scribbled on scraps of paper, the backs of receipts, and cardboard flaps torn from boxes.

IHLR: That's quite the desk! Love the story attached to it. Given its heft, I'm hoping you'll somehow come across some secret compartment and find those codes. By the way, who are you currently reading? Who do you think we should be reading?

Gray: I’m reading The Tale of Genji. If the scope of Discount frustrated you, you should leave this one alone. There are hundreds of characters, and they don’t have proper names. But it is vast and beautiful. Time goes and things happen; it seems infinite. Murasaki Shikibu is most often credited with its authorship, but it’s likely that she wasn’t the only author.

I think people should read Louise Erdrich, John Barth, David Foster-Wallace, William T. Vollmann, Chris Bachelder, Robert Boswell, Antonya Nelson, Maggie Nelson, Victor LaValle, Lydia Davis, and Richard Yates. People should read Comte de Lautréamont. People should read new authors they haven’t heard of yet, and when they find good ones, they should tell me about them so I can read them too.

IHLR: Thanks for your suggestions! A great and diverse list. And The Tale of Genji is great! Given its amount of characters, I would have thought that that might have influenced your book. What’s the next project you’re working on?

Gray: I’m working on stories for the first time since grad school. They’re harder than I remember. I’m also revising a finished novel, and I’ve just begun another about football and head trauma.

IHLR: It's great to hear you have more work on the way. We look forward to it! Any advice for young novelists out there?

Gray:Be confident in your work. Believe that you are a profound voice that needs to be heard. Believe that you are important, that your work has beauty and insights that could only have come from your own unique and special imagination. But–and this is important–acknowledge that you could be completely delusional, that there are a ton of shitty writers in the world who think they are great, and that you could very well be one of them. Holding these two dissonant ideas in your head at the same time is good practice for writing literature.

IHLR: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us at Iron Horse.

Gray: Thank you.

Casey Gray teaches writing, literature, and lexical rhetoric at New Mexico State University where he lives with his wife and two sons. His work has appeared in Ploughshares.

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